Johan Cruyff nearly retired in 1978 but after a series of bad investments, and without going too much into the details of how and why it all went wrong, he recalled: “I had lost millions in pig-farming and that was the reason I decided to become a footballer again.”
Aged 32, the three time Ballon D’or winner signed a lucrative deal with the Los Angeles Aztecs of the North American Soccer League. He stayed at the Aztecs for only a season playing 27 games, scoring 16 goals and was voted NASL Player of the Year. The following season, he moved from the west coast to the east coast when transferred to play for the Washington Diplomats, playing the full 1980 campaign, scoring 10 goals, and sticking with the club even as they were facing dire financial trouble. At the end of the season the Washington Diplomats folded completely when then owner, the Madison Square Garden Corp, accumulated losses of $6million and not enough money could be generated to save the club.
In January 1981, Cruyff played three friendly matches for FC Dordrecht. There was also huge interest from manager Jock Wallace of Leicester City and they made an attempt to sign him. Despite negotiations lasting three weeks, in which Cruyff expressed he wanted to play for the club, a deal could not be reached.
Emilio Nadal, Chief Press Officer of Spanish Segunda División side Levante commented, after the club succeeded in the signature of Johan Cruyff; “He liked the idea of returning to Spain, because he knew Spain,” says Nadal. “It was a country in which he felt at home; he liked the climate, he knew he would be able to play and, clearly, he knew he was joining a team in the Segunda and that he would possibly get some sort of favourable treatment because he was Johan Cruyff.” The fact that Levante is approximately 350km away from Barcelona and that they also don the blue and maroon vertical stripes, may just be a coincidence.
In Cruyff’s autobiography he recounts the period of his career in one brief sentence – ‘After a brief passage through the Spanish Levante, I decided to return to Amsterdam’. Perhaps because it is the most underwhelming, unsuccessful period of his career. There were various issues financially in regard to Cruyff’s fee and bonuses. From the start of the season, Levante had put together a very competitive squad, but one that didn’t have any standout players. All of them were geared towards working together, and were well-drilled with a manager that had the full backing of the players; Enrique Pachín, a former Real Madrid player.
After the first few weeks of the season Levante were amongst the few pushing for promotion into the top flight. The important wins were; 2-0 away at Getafe, 3-0 away in Malaga, 3-1 at home to Atlético Madrileño, with Jose Luis Pousada being one of Levante’s stand out players.
When Cruyff arrived, the local press asked the difference between the Cruyff Ballon d’Or 71, 73 and 74 and now? “I’m smarter now,” he answered. His first training session filled the Nou Estadi, and everything was set for a debut on February 1st against CE Sabadell, but with the finances stretched in order to secure the Cruyff deal, the Spanish Football Federation rejected the signing as long as the club did not pay back debts with former players, with the backroom staff and players part of the current squad, still being owed wages, a total amounting to around $11 million.
1st March 1981, the stadium was full. They came just to see Cruyff recall teammate Vincent Latorre. Cruyff unveiled in front of the home fans, took to the field for the first time in a Levante shirt and played the full 90 minutes in a 1-0 win over Palencia.
In addition to the weekly wage, a fixed amount stipulated in his contract, Cruyff was also entitled to 50% of the club’s ticket sales. The following week they were away to Granada, when asked how Cruyff was in training, Pachín responded “He does not kill himself.” Levante lost 1-0 and after Pachín claimed all the hype and attention around the signing of Cruyff has put too much pressure and expectation on the team, that it had in fact, benefitted the opposition.
Cruyff was pretty non existent and had minimalist impact on the game. It was reported that after the final whistle, Cruyff, as per his contract, went to seek his 50% of the receipts of the games and requested half of the cash from the home team Granada.
His third game is a 1-0 win against Barakaldo, where Cruyff went off injured at half time. The following week Pachín takes the team to Tudela for training, Cruyff goes to meet the club president and arrives back at the club when training is over. He is said to demand half the box office for the weekend’s game away against Alavés Vitoria because everyone in the Stadium would be there to see him. Zárraga, manager of Alavés (former team mate of Pachín in at Real Madrid) refuses to agree to the terms. Already in Vitoria, Cruyff decides not to play and returns to Valencia with a group of French television reporters who had come to report on him.
Levante, not wanting to admit they had lost control of their player, announced that Cruyff’s wife had been taken ill and he had to return back to Valencia. The team lost 1-0 and Pachín is fired and replaced by Joaquin Rifé, former Barcelona team-mate of Cruyff. Pachin suspects “I think everything was prepared beforehand. I looked for the moment to take off and took advantage of the Vitoria scramble.”
Rifé debuts at home with a 4-2 loss to Malaga, then loses 2-0 in Cadiz. His first point gained was in a 2-2 draw at home to Real Oviedo where Cruyff scored both goals, although the result didn’t stop Levante from sliding down the table. The following week they draw away 0-0 at Rayo Vallecano and grab three points winning away 3-2 to Atletico Madrileño. With four games to go, Levante hosted Castilla. Levante went from second in the league to ninth and the crowds grew smaller. They went on to win the game 1-0 but Cruyff failed to appear in their next match away to Linares. Appearing dressed and ready to take part in the fixture, Cruyff decided not to leave after failing to negotiate a percentage of the box office; Levante lost 3-1. Recreativo de Huelva were Levante’s penultimate game of the season and last fixture at home. Cruyff played a full 90 minutes but they lost the game 2-0. Levante lost their last game of the season 1-0 away at Racing Santander, Cruyff made no attempt to participate in this fixture and instead boarded a flight to Barcelona to play in a tribute match for former team-mate Juan Asensi. It appeared that Cruyff’s time at Levante had come to an end.
Latorre, only 19 years old, recalls his time with Cruyff as a team-mate; “he made his own thread, the one that only he knew how to do, and we did not understand those passages. It was difficult for us to get to the ball, we were not used to it. If he had come before the start of the season we would have gone up, but when he arrived, instead of adapting himself to us, the opposite happened.”
He goes on to explain Cruyff never got close to anyone at the club; “he came with a Citroen CX, trained and left.” Pachin does not look back with bitterness; “It was a small club. Cruyff could not fit in here. But his arrival moved an illusion. The bad thing is that it did not work”.
In the following season, 81-82, Levante got relegated two divisions. One for finishing near the bottom of the league and another for repeated non-payment to their players. By then, Cruyff was back at Ajax.
Rumours of Levante’s directors looking for payments from opposition teams just to field Cruyff were one of the controversies that marred his time at the club, as well as claims that he had been allowed to break club rules on wearing the official training gear and travelling with the team. Levante offered Cruyff an awful lot more financially than they were able to deliver. Leicester City were offering Cruyff around £4000 a week, which in comparison, some of Liverpool first team players of the time were only receiving around £2000 a week.
“It’s clear that Levante didn’t achieve their sporting goals with Cruyff here,” concludes Emilio Nadal, Chief Press Officer. He continued: “He never stopped being an emblematic figure of world football that played for our club. I think the fact that he was here, even if it was just for a few months, is something to be proud of.”
By Chris Nichols, a football obsessive, researcher and writer, presenting tales from footballing antiquity, urging the underdog and hailing the perpetuity of the beautiful game. Follow Chris on Twitter.